Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Outer Banks & World War I

On June 28, 1914, a Bosnian-Serb assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Exactly one month later, after a period of diplomatic maneuvering among major European powers, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Initially, the United States followed a policy of non-intervention. In 1915 a German U-boat sank the British liner, Lusistania, killing 128 Americans. Under pressure from president Wilson, Germany suspended attacks on passenger vessels.

That lasted until June of 1917.

Only after the sinking of seven U.S. merchant ships did the U.S. Congress finally declare war on Germany, on April 6, 1917. United States warships were immediately pressed into service to transport and protect troops sent to France. The east coast of the US was left virtually unprotected.

By June 5 the U-151, the first enemy warship to invade US waters in more than 100 years, arrived off the Carolina coast. She had already laid mines in the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, and New York harbor. From that time until the end of the war, in November of 1918, seven German submarines attacked and sank eleven vessels off the coast of North Carolina (the Harpathian, the Vinland, the Pinar Del Rio, the Vindeggen, the Heinrich Lund, the Jennings, the Stanley M. SeamanLightship #71, the Merak, the Mirlo, and the Nordhav).

The sinking of the lightship, a 124 foot vessel anchored by heavy chains and a 5,000 pound anchor in 185 fathoms of water 12 miles off shore of Cape Hatteras, came as a total surprise. Everyone believed that German submarines would consider her light as important for their navigation as for US shipping.

When the Mirlo struck a mine laid down by German U-boats in August of 1918 the 6,679 ton tanker, with a full cargo of gasoline, exploded, quickly turning the ocean into a raging inferno. The rescue of 42 of the 52 crew members by Coast Guard Captain John Allen Midgett and his crew from the Chicamacomico Station was one of the most dramatic rescues in the annals of the United States Coast Guard. Captain Midgett and his crew all received Gold Lifesaving Medals for their bravery and heroism.

For a more complete account of World War I and the Outer Banks please see Chapter 14, "Unguarded Shores," in the book, Graveyard of the Atlantic, by David Stick.

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of the "Joe Bell" flower. You can read it here:


  1. Anonymous7:50 AM

    Wow. Who knew? Comparatively speaking, this era and this activity seems to be undesrserved (or overlooked) in the more typical discussions about Ocracoke history. Appreciate your shedding some light for us.

    In your own experience, Philip, relating to or recollecting folks who lived through that period, any insight as to how this activity impacted day-to-day life on the island?

    As always, appreciate your sharing.

  2. Anonymous8:14 AM

    Fellow readers:

    Is it just my computer, or has the Silver Lake Harbor view from the Ocracoke Harbor Inn webcam been inoperable for some time?

    The Teach's Hole webcam is operable.

    Looking at it this morning, I was surprised--and intrigued--to note extensive flocks of birds flying (southeastward?) in V formations.

    I realize this is typical of the area for this time of year, but this is the first time I've seen it with my own eyes--so many birds and in such large formations. One flock extended fully across the view on my computer screen, from left to right.

    I suspect the birds were likely geese or ducks. Philip, any observations about such activity this time of year from your in-person perspective?

    Here in southwestern PA, I notice a seasonal spike in the prevalence and seemingly communal activity of crows. I have no expertise, but have witnessed for many years large flocks--sometimes hundreds of brids--flying in groups (not nearly as orderly as the typical goose/duck V formations), from who-knows-where to who-knows-what.

    Always interesting to see.

  3. Anonymous9:35 AM

    Maybe a song writer needs to sing about this in a tune that is easy to remember. Otherwise this haunting chapter of history will remain obscure or perhaps a student of POETRY could take pen in hand , after careful study of metaphor, time and place and reveal to those that have not thought the shores of North Carolina are awash in blood. The dark night on Lightship #71.

  4. anon 8:14 am
    I thouht it was my computer too, but maybe not.

  5. Anonymous12:36 PM

    did you download the plug in --the plug in is needed for some browsers--

    maybe those birds are drones disguised as birds

  6. Re.WWWI & recollections -- There is no one left alive on Ocracoke who remembers WWI. Now it is just a matter of stories heard from parents and grand-parents...and articles in old newspapers.

  7. The birds you are seeing are probably cormorants. They tend to fly in large flocks, often low over the water, and in a "fluid" V pattern.

  8. Anonymous10:26 PM

    Phillip ... I found my map of Ocracoke that I bought from Village Craftsman. I found Hog Shoal!!

    Now, strange question time ... Getting to Hog Shoal, would you leave from Silver Lake or can you set sail with a canoe, kayak, or flat bottomed boat from South Point? How long does it take to get there from Silver Lake (and South Point if you can launch from there? Can someone standing on the beach around South Point see people clamming on Hog Shoal?

    Thanks, Jackie

  9. Jaackie, the current at South Point can be swift, and dangerous, especially for a boat without a motor, and especially if the tide is moving seaward!

    I have never kayaked to Hog Shoal, so I'm not sure how long it would take to get there from Silver Lake; maybe 45 minutes?? You can definitely see people clamming on Hog Shoal from the shore near the village; it might be hard to see them from South Point.

  10. Kathy Phillips5:56 PM

    Interesting you commented that no one left alive on Ocracoke remembers WWI - It was just in the news this week that the last surviving veteran died, a British woman who was age 110.